Monday, February 25, 2013

Frank Zappa Buyer's Guide #6: Uncle Meat

In 1968 alone, Frank Zappa gave us a stunningly realized satirical masterpiece, a difficult yet rewarding orchestral psychodrama, and an affectionate tribute to the music of his teenage years. For an encore – and as part of the same sessions – he decided to direct a movie, and compose and record its score.

Zappa was many things, but lazy was definitely not one of them.

The Uncle Meat film was intended to tell the story of an old man who used evil science to turn a teenage rock band (Ruben and the Jets?) into dog-faced monsters. Zappa was fond of low-budget horror films (see his later tune “Cheepnis”), and all indications are that Uncle Meat would have been one. It was never finished, and the footage was shelved until 1987, when it was assembled into a surreal documentary with the same title.

The soundtrack, however, did come out, in April of 1969, as the final of the four projects recorded at Apostolic Studios in New York. It’s the fifth Mothers of Invention album, and their second double. The cover announces it as “Most of the music from the Mothers movie of the same name, which we haven’t got enough money to finish yet.” Cal Schenkel’s oddly disturbing cover collage makes use of broken glass, dentures and a whole lot of deep red.

While much of Zappa’s early reputation was built on the impressive compositions of Lumpy Gravy and We’re Only In It For the Money, the notion of the 1960s Mothers as a remarkable rock orchestra largely stems from this record. For the first time, Zappa gives us a taste of his band’s improvisational skills – for long stretches of this long record, the Mothers are given free rein to simply play.

But this is no jam session. Uncle Meat is perhaps the ultimate expression of Zappa’s anything-goes tape-splice philosophy, and his tight studio control. Its tracks were recorded throughout 1968, in both studio and live settings, and the album veers wildly from tightly composed chamber music to shuffling rock to jazz improv to snippets of conversations, much of it altered electronically to sound even stranger. All of this is presented as a single piece of music, connected in the editing booth.

First-time listeners may feel disoriented by all the musical ideas flying about here. In fact, second-time and third-time listeners may feel the same. The connecting thread, in theory, is the film, but with the soundtrack alone, imagining how these disparate pieces are meant to fit together is difficult. With repeated listens, the musical themes weaving in and out of this album do make themselves known, however. 

Uncle Meat features the debut of four of Zappa’s most indelible melodies, ones he would go on to play with virtually every incarnation of his band (and, in two cases, with the Ensemble Modern in the late ‘80s). They are: 
  • Uncle Meat,” the album’s opening track, here referred to as the “Main Title Theme.
  • Dog Breath,” here under its full title, “Dog Breath, in the Year of the Plague.” 
  •  A Pound for a Brown on the Bus,” named after a bet between two of the Mothers over whether one would moon onlookers through the touring bus window.
  • King Kong,” here both as a prelude and an 18-minute spliced-together jam.

Zappa used these themes to stitch this entire album together. The minute-long “Zolar Czakl” is a more dissonant interpretation of “Uncle Meat,” for instance, while “The Legend of the Golden Arches” makes use of the “Pound for a Brown” bassline. The blistering alto sax solo that is “Ian Underwood Whips It Out” was taken from a performance of “King Kong,” and the underpinning of that song can clearly be heard beneath Underwood’s impassioned squonking. Both “Uncle Meat” and “Dog Breath” are performed in alternate versions as well.

It should be clear that this music was constantly evolving, and there exists no “definitive” version of any of these pieces. Like everything Zappa produced, the compositions themselves changed with time, improvisation, new instrumentalists, and new musical ideas. To Zappa, music was never “finished.” In fact, several times on Uncle Meat, Zappa grafted completely different performances of his music together, creating new compositions. In the grooves of this record, you can hear him questioning the very idea of a “song” or an “album,” as 1969 audiences knew them.

All this makes Uncle Meat sound like a dry academic exercise, when in fact it’s an exhilarating listen. The tightly composed pieces are a dizzying rush of notes, but between them, Zappa leavens the mix with humor, as usual. Suzy Creamcheese makes another appearance, talking about groupie love – a topic that would become much more prevalent in the Mothers’ music.

In between the difficult “Legend of the Golden Arches” and the even more difficult “Dog Breath Variations,” Zappa splices in a snippet of Don Preston playing “Louie Louie” on the Royal Albert Hall organ, his way of symbolically cutting through the pomposity. Zappa sequences the most complex and dissonant piece of the album, “Project X,” between two ’50s-inspired ditties. The sequencing helps guide you through the maze of heady ideas.

And when there are lyrics (“Basically, this is an instrumental album,” the liner notes proclaim), they are mostly nonsensical fun. “Electric Aunt Jemima” is about Zappa’s guitar amplifier. “Dog Breath,” “The Uncle Meat Variations” and “Cruising for Burgers” sport lyrics parodying the teenage concerns of Ruben and the Jets fans. And “Mr. Green Genes” is completely ridiculous. It’s essentially a list of things you should eat, beginning with vegetables and moving on to shoes, shoe boxes and garbage trucks. “Nutritiousness, deliciousness, worthlessness,” the band exclaims at the end, and that pretty much sums it up.

While the lyrics are only here for a laugh, the music is serious business. So it’s thrilling to hear the Mothers cut loose on several tracks here. Zappa gives us an extended guitar and percussion piece early (“Nine Types of Industrial Pollution”), then steps out of the way, ceding the spotlight. Alto saxophonist Ian Underwood shines on the aforementioned “Ian Underwood Whips It Out,” and his soon-to-be-wife Ruth Komanoff shows off her skills with mallet percussion on many of these tunes.

And then there is “King Kong,” the combustible jam that takes up all of the original side four. Don Preston, Motorhead Sherwood, Bunk Gardner and Underwood all get extended solo spots, and even though the piece is stitched together from several different recordings, it sounds like a loose, live powerhouse. Of course, Zappa can’t resist messing with it – Gardner’s clarinet solo is heavily processed, to the point where it sounds like a fritzing computer, and the whole piece ends with a tape-effect  nightmare.

In many ways, Uncle Meat marks the first successful integration of Zappa’s jazz-rock leanings and his compositional acumen. It presents the Mothers as a chamber orchestra of a completely different kind, one with the skill to perform this intensely complex music, but also the ability to explode in a fury of improvisation. And it presents Zappa as a band leader without any musical borders.

Yes, it’s daunting. Uncle Meat is not an album for casual listening, and if your previous experience of Zappa has been limited to “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” and “Valley Girl,” this will sound bewildering. But for those willing to stick with it, there are innumerable rewards. Uncle Meat is one of Zappa’s very best messes. 

Rating: Essential. 

Which version to buy: Unfortunately, your options are limited, unless you can track down the original vinyl. All of the CD versions of this album are drenched in digital reverb, the results of a 1987 digital remix. More unfortunately, Zappa saw fit to include three “penalty tracks,” shoved between sides three and four. You get 45 interminable minutes of dialogue from the finally completed movie, and a song called “Tango Na Minchia Tanta” that was clearly recorded in the ‘80s, and has no connection to Uncle Meat. These tracks completely disrupt the feel of the album, and they’re included on both the 1993 Ryko edition and the 2012 Zappa/Universal reissue. So there’s no avoiding them. I’m holding out hope for an Uncle Meat sessions project/object release sometime this year. 

Next week: Mothermania.

1 comment:

  1. I don't know what Anonymous is on about, but as always Andre... love the article. This was an early Zappa album for me, as I slowly explored his music. I remember it being very hard to get through, but I adored (and adore) the Uncle Meat main theme so much, it makes the whole album worthy of further exploration.